That was how long had passed since Yume had finished her mage training and returned home to her family in the country, though, sometimes, it was hard to believe she was really gone. She kept in regular touch with all the friends she had made during her short time in Tokyo, and as Milinda sat at the bar after a long night of DJ-ing, re-reading the letter she had received from the newly-licensed mage that morning, she realized, yet again, how much she really missed Yume. Masami's new trainee, a seventeen-year-old boy with a major crush on her, was a nice enough kid, but Kikuchi Yume had touched their hearts in a way none of Masami's other trainees, past or present, were able to do.
After all, it was because of Yume and her magic that Masami was finally able to move on with his life after a decade of grieving over the loss of his girlfriend, Takako, in a tragic car accident. Every time Milinda saw Masami smiling and laughing, his eyes free of the sadness that had haunted him ever since Takako's death, she silently said a prayer of thanks to whomever had sent Yume into their lives. After so many years of watching Masami merely exist, his life centering only around Pachanga and his duties as a mage instructor, it was wonderful to see him actually enjoying life again.
However, despite the fact that Masami had begun to move forward with his life, Milinda had yet to tell him how she really felt about him. She frowned as she got to the part of the letter where Yume asked if she had confessed her feelings yet. Yume asked her the same question in every letter she sent, and, every time, Milinda was forced to admit she hadn't, usually accompanied by some stupid explanation as to why she hadn't done so.
Masami-chan's been busy with his new trainee. Masami-chan's away on business with Master Chief Ginpun. Masami-chan and Kera are in the middle of doing inventory at the club.
Milinda wondered what justification she could use this time for her cowardice. She was beginning to run out of plausible excuses for not telling Masami she was in love with him. Would Yume believe Masami had been abducted by the Yakuza for some shady business the club had been dealing in, and that was why she couldn't tell him?
"Another letter from Yume-chan?" Masami asked, breaking Milinda from her thoughts.
Startled, Milinda looked up from the dolphin-printed stationary she was reading and forced a smile on her face, hoping Masami couldn't tell what she had been thinking about just then. "Yeah, I just got it in the mail this morning." She flipped the letter over on the counter so he couldn't see what Yume had written. "It sounds like she's doing great. She's doing well in school, and she's really enjoying helping people who request her magic."
"It's so cute how Yume keeps in touch with letters," Kera, the bartender, said, joining in the conversation as he began mopping the floor. "I guess her family doesn't have an Internet connection."
"They do live out in the country," Masami reminded him. "Remember, she didn't even have a cell phone when she came to Tokyo."
"That's true. I forgot about that." Pausing in his mopping, the redhead rested his chin on the top of his broom handle and sighed loudly. "It sure would be nice to see Yume again. I miss her," he admitted, saying what was on everybody's mind. "Maybe she could come for a visit during her winter break?"
"Maybe," Milinda said, sliding Yume's letter back into its envelope while Masami was busy emptying the cash register and slipping it in her purse. She didn't want to risk leaving it behind and having Masami read it, even though she knew he wasn't the type of person to read someone else's private mail. "I'll ask her about it the next time I write her."
Behind the counter, Masami closed the drawer to the cash register, having finished totaling their profits for the night, and turned around to put the cash in Pachanga's secret safe. "We had a good night," he announced once the money was safely locked away. "Milinda, Kera, thank you both for your hard work tonight."
"You already leaving, Owner?" Kera asked, again stopping in his work when he noticed Masami reaching for the keys on the counter.
"I have an early appointment with a client in the morning, so I'm turning in. Do you mind closing up down here?"
Kera saluted, dropping the mop on the floor. "Aye, aye, Owner!"
After tossing the keys to the club over to Kera, Masami said his goodbyes and headed upstairs to his private apartment on the top floor of the building. For one insane second, Milinda considered following him, even going as far as to reach for her purse in preparation to leave, but at the last moment, she lost her nerve and settled back down. She sighed loudly as she rested her head on the bar counter, cursing her inability to confess.
Why was telling him her feelings so difficult for her? Milinda never considered herself a timid person before. In fact, most people would probably describe her as the type of girl who always went for whatever she wanted, no matter what obstacles were in her way. Her parents had disapproved of her wanting to become a DJ, thinking she should settle down with a nice man, have some kids, maybe become a teacher or an office lady if she really wanted to be a "career woman," but that certainly hadn't stop her from pursuing her dream. What was so different about Masami? What prevented her from going after the man of her dreams?
"Here. You look like you can use this."
Recognizing Kera's voice, Milinda slowly raised her head to see that he had made her a margarita - her favorite - which he placed down in front of her. She flashed him a grateful smile and took a sip of the drink. "Thanks," she said, setting the glass back down.
"So, why haven't you told him yet?" Kera asked, causing her smile to abruptly turn into a scowl.
Not him, too.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she replied, flipping her hair over her shoulder.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about, Milinda." Reaching for a rag, he began wiping a nearby glass. "It's been a while now since Yume passed her test and went home, but even though Owner has finally begun to move on with his life, you still haven't told him how you really feel about him. What gives?"
"I am going to tell him…eventually. I'm just waiting for the right moment. You can't rush this type of thing."
Kera cocked a doubtful eyebrow in her direction. "You've been saying that ever since I first started working here."
"So what's stopping you? Is it because Takako-san was your friend and you feel guilty?"
Milinda shook her head. There was a time right after Yume left when she thought that might be the reason, but she knew that wasn't it. "No, I like to think that Takako, wherever she is, would be happy for us if Masami-chan and I got together. I know she wants him to move on and find love again with somebody else."
"Kera, no offense, but I don't really want to talk about it."
"Hey, don't forget you're the one who wouldn't leave me alone when I was too scared to ask Owner to test if I had magic power," he reminded her with a wag of his finger. "Consider this karma."
"That was different," she insisted.
"Well…uh…" Much to her irritation, Milinda couldn't come up with a good explanation. The reason why she had meddled into his business was the exact same reason why he was currently meddling into hers; they were friends who cared about each other. "It just was," she finished feebly, then took another sip of her margarita.
"Come on, Milinda. Just pretend I'm some random bartender who you've never met before and you're so drunk out of your mind that you begin telling me your pathetic life story about what drove you to drown your sorrows in the bottom of the bottle."
"In that case…" Milinda pushed her margarita glass back toward him. "Enough with this frou-frou drink. If we're going to do this, we might as well make it realistic, right?"
"What do you want?"
Kera pulled out a small shot glass and a bottle of tequila, then poured her a drink. Reaching for a lime slice sitting on a plate on the counter, Milinda took the slice between the thumb and index finger of her left hand and shook a little salt on the fleshy area between them. With the practiced ease of an experienced drinker, she licked the salt off her hand, downed the shot in one big gulp, and bit into the lime, barely making a face at the rather unpleasant taste.
"Another," she ordered, slamming the shot glass back down.
Again, Kera obliged, but by her fifth shot, he pulled the plug. "No more until you tell me what's really bothering you," he said when she pouted at his refusal to pour her another drink. "Why haven't you declared your feelings to Owner?"
"I'm… Well, I guess I'm just scared," she confessed, her tongue looser from the alcohol.
"Scared? Scared of what?"
"Rejection, now give me another shot. I held up my end of the bargain, so you better hold up yours."
Milinda could tell Kera didn't really think that was a good idea. Nevertheless, he poured her another shot of the tequila and she repeated her actions from before.
"You, scared of rejection?" he asked once she had finished the shot. "I don't believe that for one second, Milinda. What guy in his right mind would ever reject you?"
"You're just saying that because you're my friend."
"No, I'm not. I see the lustful glances all the guys give you when you're DJ-ing. You could have any man you want."
"They were probably all drunk," she insisted. "To them, even my 200-pound Aunt Keiko would look like the reincarnation of Aphrodite."
"That's not true, and you know it."
Milinda shrugged, not really caring to argue the point. "Well, even if you're right, that doesn't mean Masami-chan won't reject me," she said, twirling a strand of her hair absent-mindedly around her finger. "He's not like other guys. He's not one to be taken in by big boobs and a leather miniskirt."
"Well, you'll never know until you try."
"That's the best advice you can give me?"
"Hey, I never claimed to be Ann Landers," he joked, flashing his trademark smile before turning serious once again. "Seriously, though, you've got to tell Owner how you feel, Milinda. You've waited too long for this chance to let it slip away. Even if he does end up rejecting you, isn't it better to know how he feels rather than wasting another ten or twenty years of your life, wondering 'what if?' Didn't you once tell me that life was too short for hesitation?"
Maybe it was the booze talking, but Kera actually made a lot of sense. "Maybe you're right," Milinda reluctantly admitted, reaching across the bar to place her hand over the one he was using to wipe the counter. "Thanks for the talk, Kera. I appreciate it."
"No problemo," he said in a cheesy Spanish accent that made her giggle. "Anytime, señorita."
Sliding off her stool, Milinda steadied herself on her feet and grabbed her purse. She was a bit drunk, but after working in a bar for so many years, she had learned to hold her liquor.
"You leaving?" Kera asked.
"Yeah. My shift at the grocery store starts at noon, so I ought to go home and get some sleep."
"Do you want me to call you a cab or something? I don't like the idea of you walking to your apartment alone in your condition."
"No, I'll be okay. My place is only a block away. No need to waste the fare money."
"Okay, I'll see you later then."
You've got to tell Owner how you feel, Milinda.
'Oh, what does Kera know?' Milinda thought bitterly to herself the next day as she balanced a tray of cookie samples in one hand while massaging her temple with the other. Her head pounded from the headache brought on by her tequila-induced hangover, and the interior of her mouth felt fuzzy, like she had fallen asleep with a dozen cotton balls stuffed inside.
It wasn't as if Kera was the one who was confessing to the person he had loved for almost a decade. Heck, as far as she knew, he had never even had a steady girlfriend. He had absolutely no idea how difficult it was to confess to somebody your feelings for them.
Yet, as much as she tried to convince herself otherwise, Milinda knew Kera was right. She couldn't spend the rest of her life wondering "What if?" She had to know once and for all if she and Masami had a future together, and if not, then she needed to move on with her life.
It was funny, but, even after all the times Milinda had tried to convince Masami that it was okay to start dating again after the accident, she never realized she was guilty of the same thing. Sure, she dated occasionally and even had a couple of lovers over the years, but none of those relationships were ever truly serious. Milinda never allowed herself to totally commit to another guy, no matter how wonderful he was, in hope that someday she and Masami would finally get together.
Hearing the voice she knew so well, Milinda almost dropped the tray she was holding in surprise. Luckily, however, she managed to catch it just in time, quickly rearranging the cookies right before he walked up to her, carrying a small basket of groceries in his hand.
"Oh, hi, Masami-chan!" she said, smiling at her crush as she held up the tray and tried to focus on her job. Her hand was slightly shaking, but he didn't seem to notice. "Would you like a cookie? They're really delicious."
"Sure, I suppose it wouldn't hurt," he replied, taking a bite out of the cookie he chose from the various kinds on her tray. "Mmm, this is good."
"We're having a special today. Two boxes for 500 yen. You can find them on aisle two."
"Really? I might have to get some, then," Masami said, helping himself to another cookie from the tray. Technically, she was only supposed to give one per customer, but Milinda wasn't about to scold him. As far as she was concerned, he could take the entire tray if he wanted.
"So, what are you doing here, Masami-chan?" she asked once he had finished his cookie. "It's rare to see you at the grocery store." Masami's refrigerator was notorious for always being empty, since most of the time he ate out whenever he did decide to eat.
"Well, it's not often I get a teenage boy for a trainee. Most of the girls I get couldn't care less about what's in my pantry, but Hiromasa-kun's a growing boy with a big appetite. This is actually my second trip to the store this week, if you can believe that, though I don't think you were working the first time I was here."
"Ah, I see." A part of her had hoped he'd come to see her, but Milinda knew that was just a silly fantasy. "How are things going with him?"
"He hasn't given me too much trouble so far, other than the Kamina incident during his first week of training. He's very eager and motivated to learn, partly because of you."
Masami laughed. "Milinda, don't tell me you haven't noticed that the kid has a huge crush on you. I think Hiromasa-kun's hoping that if he does well in his training and becomes a licensed mage, it'll impress you."
Milinda arched an eyebrow. "And you do nothing to discourage that kind of thinking?" she asked, mostly in jest, though she wished Masami would act at least a little upset over a younger man's interest in her. After all, she always did when he was training a cute girl.
"I don't really see the harm. It's not like you're dating anyone at the moment, so let the boy have his older woman fantasy. He'll be leaving at the end of the month anyway."
"Anything I can do to help."
"Anyway, I should probably be going," Masami announced, glancing down at his watch and frowning. "I have a meeting at the branch office in thirty minutes, and I still have to drop these groceries off at the apartment. Those cookies are on aisle two, right?"
"Y-Yeah, on the end closest to the registers. Left side."
"Thanks. I'll see you later, Milinda."
Masami had only taken a few steps toward the cookie aisle, though, when Milinda, in a burst of confidence, called him back. If she was going to make a move, now was as good as time as ever.
He turned back around. "Yes, Milinda?"
"Um…" It's now or never, Milinda… "Let's go out together this weekend."
"Just as friends," she quickly replied, fearing he might say no if he thought it was a real date. "I heard a new club was opening up in Shinjuku this weekend and thought we should check out the competition."
"Sure. Sounds like fun."
Milinda let out the breath she didn't realize she had been holding, not believing what she just heard. "Really?"
Masami nodded, smiling. "Call me later with the details."
Waiting until Masami turned the corner down the aisle, Milinda squealed in excitement.
It was official.
Milinda had absolutely nothing to wear on her date with Masami.
As she slipped out of the green tube dress she had tried on and hung it back in the closet, Milinda sighed loudly. That wasn't exactly true; she had plenty of clothes, but none of them seemed quite right. Either they were too tight, too short, or just plain too revealing. Her sexy wardrobe might have worked perfectly fine for her previous boyfriends, but she wanted Masami to see her as more than a sex object.
Clad only in her lacy matching bra and panties, Milinda walked over to her purse, which was laying on the futon, and fished out her wallet. Maybe she could pick up a new outfit after work tomorrow, but that idea was quickly tossed when she looked in her checkbook. She barely had enough money to pay that month's rent, much less buy a dress. Unfortunately, even with two jobs, it was sometimes a struggle to make ends meet.
After putting the wallet away, Milinda went back to the closet and pulled out three outfits: the green tube dress, a pair of jeans and a sequined tube top, and a short, black halter dress with a plunging neckline. They weren't perfect, but they would have to do. She then set them aside, the final decision to be made later in the week, and flopped down on her futon.
Even though their date was still a few days away, Milinda could already feel the butterflies dancing in her stomach. She simultaneously felt like she was going to throw up and explode from happiness. Finally, after ten years, she and Masami were having their first date.
"You don't mind, do you, Takako?" she asked the smiling girl in the picture sitting on the floor beside her bed. It was a framed photograph of the three of them - Milinda, Masami, and Takako - when they were in high school together. "I know how much you loved him, and. believe me, I would never want to take your place in his heart, but I love him, too. I just want to make him happy again. Is that okay with you?"
The picture, of course, didn't say anything back, but Milinda still smiled. Takako wouldn't mind, she was sure of it.
Looking at his face in the photograph, the fear she thought she had chased away when she found the courage to ask Masami out returned, stronger than ever. Her smile disappeared.
What if he wasn't really ready to move on?
What if he still felt bonded to Takako?
What if he didn't return her feelings for him?
The last question particularly bothered her. Milinda and Takako, even though they were best friends, were about as different as night and day. While she had always been a little on the wild side, Takako was the girl-next-door - friendly, funny, sweet. She had also been a mage, giving her and Masami a special bond that Milinda knew she would never be able to share with him. What if Masami wanted somebody more like Takako?
Too wound up and unable to sleep, Milinda pulled Yume's letter out of her purse and went over to her desk. She decided that perhaps writing to Yume about her fears would help her get over them, so she took out a sheet of stationary and began writing.
I'm so glad to hear you are doing so well. Everybody here misses you like crazy, though. In fact, we were just talking about you the other day while Masami-chan and Kera were closing up Pachanga. Kera really wants you to come for a visit, and though Masami-chan didn't say anything, I know he would like to see you again too. We all would. Runa-chan talks about you all the time, and a really cute guy named Zennosuke-san comes by the club every once in a while, asking about you. Why didn't you tell me you had met a boy here, Yume? He so obviously has a crush on you. I can tell. You should give him a shot. He seems really sweet. Long distance relationships are hard, but your friend Angela seems to doing okay with that Inoue fellow even though she's back in England now.
As for my love life… No, I still haven't told Masami-chan about my feelings for him. I know, I know… But I'm going to do it soon. Really. Maybe even this weekend. I finally managed to get up the nerve to ask Masami-chan out and he actually said yes. Of course, I don't think he really sees it as a date, but it's a good sign that he wants to spend time with me somewhere other than the club, right?
I'm so nervous, Yume. I'm literally shaking just thinking about confessing to Masami-chan, which isn't like me at all. I've loved him for so long… I don't know what I'll do if he doesn't feel the same way about me. But you and Kera are right; I can't keep living like this, wondering if Masami-chan loves me too. I have to know the truth, once and for all, and if it turns out that Masami-chan doesn't see me as more than a friend, then at least I tried.
Yume, I wish you were here. Maybe you could use your magic to give me courage, or at the very least, a new dress for me to wear. (Just kidding! Kinda…) You probably can't, but wouldn't it be nice if you could?
Anyway, I better go to sleep now. I have an early shift at my job tomorrow.
When she finished addressing the envelope and sealing the letter inside, Milinda had to admit she did feel a little better, though not by much. She placed the letter on top of the stack of bills she planned to send off tomorrow and crawled back into bed.
The day before her big date with Masami, Milinda passed by her favorite boutique on her way home and stopped to stare at the window display. Every day after work, she came by to admire the gorgeous red wrap dress worn on the center mannequin and wished she had the extra 30,000 yen to buy it. It was exactly the kind of outfit that would be perfect for her date - modest, yet still sexy enough to suit her usual tastes. She knew Masami would love it, if only she had enough money to buy it.
"You have got to stop torturing yourself," Milinda scolded herself as she tried, unsuccessfully, to pull her eyes away from the mannequin. "There's no way you'll find that kind of money before tomorrow night…"
"I think you would look very beautiful in that dress, Milinda-san."
Milinda froze. There was only one person who called her "Milinda-san," but it couldn't be her. Could it?
Turning around, she came face-to-face with a smiling teenage girl carrying a small suitcase, the cowlick in her hair still as prominent as ever. Milinda had to blink a couple of times before she realized that the girl was really there and not some figment of her imagination.
"Konnichiwa, Milinda-san," Yume said, bowing politely. "It's nice to see you again."
"Yume, what are you doing in Tokyo?" Milinda demanded to know once she got over her initial shock. "Why aren't you at home with your family? Do your parents even know you're here?"
"Kera-san and Runa-chan didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
A faint blush crossed Yume's cheeks. "I'm here for a weekend visit," she explained. "I'm staying with Runa-chan's family."
"Kera-san called me a couple of days ago, asking if I could come to Tokyo. Apparently, he had already talked things over with Runa-chan's mother about me staying with them."
"And neither of them told me?" Milinda frowned, wondering why in the world Kera and Runa would keep Yume's visit a secret from her. After all, she was the one who suggested inviting Yume back to Tokyo in the first place. It was weird that they would call Yume, then not even tell her about it. "If I knew you were coming, I would have been happy to let you stay with me."
"That's okay, Milinda-san. I know your apartment is small. I wouldn't have wanted to be an imposition."
"Yume, you're never an imposition!"
"You're very kind, but Runa-chan's house is fine, really," Yume said, seeming strangely uncomfortable with the subject. She wouldn't even look Milinda in the eye.
Milinda didn't quite understand what was going on, but she decided to let it go. More than likely, Yume preferred the idea of staying at the Morikawas' fancier house instead of her one-room apartment and was just too polite to tell her. Milinda didn't really blame her. If she had the choice, she'd probably want to stay with Runa, too.
"Well, it's still really good to see you," Milinda said, changing the subject. "We've all missed you."
"I know." Yume blushed again, most likely realizing how that must have sounded. "I mean, I got your letter this morning, right before I left Tono."
"Then you know about…?"
"Your date with Oyamada-sensei? Yes."
"It's not really a date," Milinda corrected Yume with a small frown at the reminder as she turned back around to look at the dress again, her arms folded over her chest. "We're just going to check out a new club where one of my friends is DJ-ing. It's really more like a business meeting."
"But you do plan on telling Oyamada-sensei how you feel about him, right?"
"Maybe…" The closer it came to the big night, the less sure Milinda had become about admitting the truth to Masami. There were times that she was full of confidence and couldn't wait for Saturday to come, but those feelings were few and far between and mostly canceled out by her more potent fear of what would happen when she finally told him.
"Milinda-san, you need to be honest about your feelings," Yume said, her voice unusually authoritative. Even she seemed surprised when her native Tohaku accent slipped out - something that normally only happened when she felt strongly about something - but, after a brief pause, she continued. "I thought you wanted to help show Oyamada-sensei that he could still have a happy future and to, hopefully, share that future with him."
"I do, but -"
"Then tell him that tomorrow night."
Milinda sighed, though good-naturedly. She couldn't exactly get mad at Yume for saying the same thing she probably would have said if their roles had been reversed. "You've been talking to Kera, haven't you?" she asked with a slight roll of her eyes. "He's been telling me the same thing ever since I told him about us going to the club."
In fact, sometimes the Pachanga bartender seemed even more excited about the "date" than she was. He wanted to know everything, from where they were going to when Masami planned to pick her up to what she planned to wear. When Milinda had told Kera about the money problems preventing her from buying the dress in the store window, he even offered to loan her the money, though she had refused his generosity.
"We both want you and Oyamada-sensei to be happy," Yume said softly. "That's all."
"I know." Smiling, Milinda gave Yume a hug, then reached for her suitcase against the younger girl's protest. With one last, longing look at the dress, she started walking in the direction of the Morikawa's house. "Come on, I'll show you to Runa-chan's."
The big night had finally arrived. While Yume, who had come over in order to help Milinda prepare, wrapped her hair in hot rollers, Milinda sat nervously in front of her vanity mirror biting her thumbnail, pretty much ruining the French manicure she had splurged on earlier that day. She felt like she was sixteen again, getting ready for her first official date.
"Everything is going to be all right, Milinda-san," Yume assured her. "As long as you're honest about your feelings, I'm sure Oyamada-sensei will appreciate it."
Yume smiled. "Of course. I might not be very experienced with boys, but I can't imagine Oyamada-sensei saying no to you."
"Speaking of boys, have you seen Zennosuke-san yet?" Milinda asked, changing the subject in order to get her mind off her impending date.
In the mirror's reflection, Milinda saw Yume turn a bright red as the teen suddenly became engrossed in undoing the rollers and brushing her hair. "I-I went to watch his soccer team's game earlier today," she confessed. "We didn't have much time to talk, since he was busy coaching the kids, but it was…nice."
"Really? I think somebody has a boyfriend…" Milinda teased in a sing-song voice.
"Milinda-san!" If possible, Yume's blush deepened. "He's not my boyfriend. We don't even live in the same city."
"That hasn't stopped Angela and her boyfriend. They don't even live in the same country, but they're still together, aren't they?"
"Yes, but…" Setting down the brush, Yume turned around and focused her attention on the three outfits Milinda had picked out earlier in the week, which she had laid out on the bed. "What do you plan to wear?" Yume asked, effectively ending their discussion about the cute soccer coach.
Milinda walked over to the futon and sighed as she picked up the black halter dress. She supposed it would have to do, though she couldn't help but wish she was holding the red one she fell in love with at the store. She began untying her bathrobe and was about to change when Yume, who had modestly turned around to look in her closet while she dressed, suddenly stopped her.
"Milinda-san, that dress is nice," the country girl said, reaching into the closet to pull something out, "but maybe you would prefer to wear this one instead?"
Looking at the dress Yume held up, Milinda could hardly believe her eyes. Hesitantly, she stepped forward and touched the fabric, gasping when she realized it was indeed real.
"B-But how?" she asked, taking it from Yume and holding it against her body as she admired her reflection in the mirror. "This dress… I never bought it, though. It was too expensive. How did it end up in my closet?" Milinda glanced over at Yume, her eyes widening. "Oh, Yume, you didn't buy this for me, did you? I can't accept such an extravagant present!"
Yume shook her head. "I didn't buy it, Milinda-san. I don't have that kind of money either."
"Then how? Your powers?"
The teen didn't say anything, but Milinda knew she had guessed correctly by the deep blush crawling up her face. Letting out a sigh of disappointment, Milinda reluctantly handed the dress back to her.
"Yume, I appreciate the thought, but I don't want to get you in trouble with the Bureau of Mage Labor. You know you aren't allowed to use your powers without an official request," Milinda scolded. She had been around Masami long enough that she practically knew the mage laws by heart, despite the fact that she had no magical powers herself.
"It's okay, Milinda-san. I won't get in trouble with the Bureau. This is perfectly legal."
"How can it be legal? I didn't make a request."
"I'll explain it later," Yume promised, pulling the dress off its hanger and offering it to her once again. "Please accept it. You do like it, don't you? It's not the wrong one?"
"Of course I do! I love it, but…"
Smiling brightly, Yume placed the dress back in her hands. "Then take it. I'm sure Oyamada-sensei will like it."
What could she do? Milinda still didn't understand how giving her the dress was within the mage laws, but she couldn't exactly refuse Yume's heart-felt gift without hurting her feelings. Back during her training, Yume had always been very sensitive about her powers, and the last thing she wanted was to depress Yume when she was only trying to help. After a moment of silent deliberation, Milinda finally accepted the dress, figuring that if it really was an illegal action, Yume was already in trouble anyway. If she was going to get in trouble, it might as well be for something worthwhile.
"Thank you, Yume," Milinda said once she had finished changing. The dress was a perfect fit, almost as if it had been made especially for her. "I really appreciate this. I think this might be one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me."
"I'm glad." Picking up the three outfits, Yume hung them back up in the closet. "Oh, there is one condition I forgot to tell you about," she announced after she had finished putting everything away.
"Hmm?" Milinda began twirling around in a circle in front of the full-length mirror, admiring the dress from every angle.
"The spell will only last until midnight. At that time, it will turn back to the original outfit I transformed it from."
Stopping in mid-spin when she heard that, Milinda started laughing. "Oh, I get it! I'm supposed to be Cinderella, and you're my fairy godmother."
"I suppose you can say that…"
"Well, that's okay. Even if I can only wear it for a few hours, it'll be worth it," Milinda said, heading over to her jewelry box and pulling out a pair of gold hoop earrings and a couple of bangle bracelets. "Besides, I doubt we'll stay out too late. Kera's in charge of Pachanga for the night, but Masami-chan will probably-"
Just then, the doorbell rang, causing Milinda to drop one of the earrings she had been trying to put on in surprise. Yume immediately dropped down on her knees to retrieve it for her while Milinda grabbed a tube of lipstick and quickly began painting her lips a fire-engine red to match the shade of her dress. Her heart rate nearly doubled.
"Oh, why did he have to come so early?" she wailed when she glanced over her alarm clock and saw that it was fifteen minutes to nine. "I told him nine o'clock!"
"Would you like me to answer it and tell Oyamada-sensei you need a little more time to get ready?" Yume asked, handing her back the lost earring. The doorbell rang again.
"Yes. I mean, no. Oh, I don't know." Taking a deep breath to calm herself down, Milinda set the lipstick tube back on the vanity and put on the earring. She then took one last look in the mirror, and deciding she looked good enough, headed toward the door. "I'll get it."
She didn't know how she managed it, but Milinda somehow found the courage to finally turn the doorknob and show Masami in.
"Hi, Masami-chan," she greeted him, hoping he couldn't notice how much she was shaking. "Come in."
"Sorry, I'm a little early," he apologized as he walked in, looking quite handsome in his favorite white blazer. "I thought it would be a good-" Masami paused when he noticed his former trainee standing off to the side. "Oh, Yume-chan, I didn't realize you would be here. How are you enjoying your visit so far?"
"It's been wonderful," she replied. "The Morikawas have been gracious hosts, and I'm so happy to see everybody again. I'm just disappointed it has to end so soon."
"Well, before you leave tomorrow, be sure to stop by the club. I'd really like to hear how you are doing with your mage work in Tono."
"I will." Gathering her jacket from over the back of a chair where she had left it when she arrived, Yume slipped it on and went over to the door to change back into her shoes. "Well, I should be going now. It's about dinnertime, so Morikawa-san is probably wondering where I am. I hope you two enjoy the club."
Grateful for a distraction, Milinda offered to show Yume out and followed her into the hall. Her nerves must have shown, because the teen gave her an encouraging smile.
"You'll be fine, Milinda-san," Yume assured her again. "Just relax and be yourself."
"I hope you're right, Yume. Thank you for coming over and helping me get ready."
"No problem. And remember, the spell will wear off by midnight."
"I won't, Fairy Godmother," she promised, causing them both to laugh.
"Good luck. I'll see you tomorrow."
Once Yume was gone, Milinda took a moment to compose herself, then headed back inside her small apartment. Masami stood waiting for her, having hardly moved from the spot where she had left him. He looked up when she returned, though, his eyes lingering a tad bit longer than necessary on her dress before walking over. He didn't say anything, but she knew he approved.
"Ready to go?" he asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be."
When Milinda and Masami arrived at Kaze, the line of people hoping to get into Tokyo's hottest new nightclub nearly wound completely around the building. Luckily for them, however, one of Milinda's DJ friends who was spinning that night had put them on the guest list, so, once they finally made it to the door after about an hour of waiting, they were waved right in by the large, menacing bouncer standing outside. The loud music that barraged them as soon as they stepped inside pounded in Milinda's ears, softening the sound of her own racing heartbeat as she grabbed Masami's hand and led him through the mass of dancing bodies toward the bar.
"Wow, this place is packed," Masami shouted to her over the noise. Milinda could barely hear him.
"It's just the novelty. After a couple of weeks, it'll become old news and things will settle down."
"Well, at least it's not a salsa club. If it was, I might be worried."
"Pachanga will always be the number one salsa club in Tokyo," she insisted, grinning as she flirtatiously glanced back at him over her shoulder. "After all, you have the best DJ in town working for you, do you not?"
"That I do," he chuckled.
Milinda relaxed a little bit, glad that things had gotten off to a good start. Maybe tonight wouldn't be so bad after all. "Do you want a drink?" she asked when they finally made it to the bar. The music wasn't quite as loud there, so they were able to resume their normal speaking voices.
"I wouldn't mind a martini."
"A martini and a cosmopolitan, please," she told the bartender. Two of the stools in front of the bar had just been vacated by a couple heading on to the dance floor, so Milinda hopped on one and motioned for Masami to take the other. "Sit. This might be the only time tonight we'll be able to."
He gladly took her up on her offer. "So, your friend is the DJ tonight?" Masami asked as he sat down beside her.
"Yeah, Michael's one of the best when it comes to this type of music," Milinda replied, trying to see if she could spot him over all the people. Normally, his electric blue mohawk would be very easy to locate in a crowd, but she must have seen at least three other people with the same exact hairstyle - one of them female. "He had a drug problem a couple of years ago - crystal meth - but he's clean and sober now. Very much in demand."
"How did you meet him? This doesn't seem like your scene."
"You'd be surprised." Reaching for the cosmopolitan the bartender had set in front of her, Milinda took a sip of the pink drink and hoped Masami wouldn't press for more details. The truth was, Michael was one of her old boyfriends. They hadn't dated for very long - a couple of weeks at best, thanks to his addiction - but she had helped him through his recovery and they remained good friends.
Much to her relief, Masami seemed to lose interest in Michael when she didn't offer anything else about their history together. Instead, he lit up a cigarette and turned his attention to the other dancers.
Milinda wanted to join them, but despite the fact that he owned a salsa bar, it had been years since she had last seen Masami on the dance floor. He and Takako used to be avid salsa dancers when she was still alive, so she figured dancing brought back bittersweet memories for him. Sighing, Milinda contented herself with tapping her foot to the beat of the music and ordering more drinks.
"You know, you don't have to stay with me all night, Milinda," he said a few songs later, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. After one last puff, Masami snuffed out his cigarette - his third - in a nearby ashtray. "I'm sure there are plenty of guys here who would be more than willing to dance with you."
Her foot stopping in mid-tap, Milinda looked up. "But what about you?" she asked, more than a little disappointed that he was already trying to pawn her off on another guy. Granted, he was under the impression that they were only two friends checking out a possible competitor, but was she that poor company?
"I'm fine here at the bar. I'll save your seat for you."
"Masami-chan, nobody comes to a dance club just to sit at the bar and drink all night." In a sudden burst of alcohol-induced courage, Milinda slid off her stool and took Masami's hand, pulling it toward the dance floor. She realized that if she really wanted something to happen between them, it was about time she took the reins. "Come on, let's dance. It'll be fun."
"No, it's okay. Really. Besides, I don't know how to dance to this music. You know I dance Latin."
"Excuses, excuses." Grabbing the martini glass from a surprised Masami's hand, Milinda gulped down the rest of his drink and set the empty glass back down on the counter next to the four she had already finished. She then grabbed his free hand and used her full weight to help pull him off the stool, pleased when he put up only a weak resistance. "Don't worry, Masami-chan, you'll be fine. I'll teach you everything you need to know," she promised. "If you can dance salsa,then I'm sure you can dance anything. Please?"
Masami laughed. "Okay, okay, if you really want to dance with me, I will, but if I look like an idiot out there, it's your fault."
Taking his hand, Milinda led Masami out onto the crowded dance floor, a little of her new-found confidence waning when she noticed Michael had switched from an upbeat number to a romantic slow jam. Around them, the other couples moved closer together, making it difficult in some cases to determine where one person ended and the other began.
"We don't have to dance to this song if you don't want," Milinda said when she saw Masami momentarily pause. "We can wait for a faster number."
"No, this is fine," he insisted. "It's probably better to start with a slow one anyway, right?"
Hesitantly, Milinda stepped forward and reached for Masami's hands. She placed them securely on her hips, then moved to wrap her arms around his neck. They were so close together that she could smell the faint scent of his aftershave, but though she wanted nothing more to be able to trail kisses up and down his throat and run her fingers through his hair, Milinda managed to control herself, focusing on the task at hand.
"Just listen to the beat," she instructed him, unable to meet his eyes in fear that he would know exactly what she was thinking at that moment. "As long as you let the music lead you, you'll be fine. Don't think, just dance."
He nodded his understanding, and they began.
As she had suspected, Masami was a quick learner. A bit stiff at first in the beginning, he gradually loosened up as the music continued, pulling Milinda closer toward him as they grinded their hips together in time to the beat. Milinda sensed herself becoming flushed, and she had to stop herself from gasping aloud when one of his hands briefly lowered to brush her behind. She was positive it was only a slip, but Masami didn't apologize, dancing on as if it never even happened.
When the song inevitably ended, Milinda felt like she had just finished running a marathon despite standing in one spot, her heart pounding against her ribcage and her breath coming only in shallow gulps. She glanced up at her dance partner, surprised that he seemed a little flushed as well though he attempted to hide it.
"Did I do okay?" Masami asked, quickly removing his hands from their spot on her hips as if he had only just realized he was touching a hot burner on the stove.
Milinda nodded, not quite trusting her voice. She was reluctant to let go of her grip on his shoulders, but she finally forced herself to do so, bringing her hands back down to her sides and stepping back. "Y-You were great, Masami-chan," she said, cracking a small smile. "Really great."
"I had an excellent teacher."
"No, I didn't do anything, really. You just have talent," she insisted, shaking her head. "I forgot how good a dancer you were."
"It has been a while…" For a moment, Milinda thought saw a flash of the old Masami in his eyes - the frozen-hearted man mourning the death of his first love - but it vanished so quickly, she was convinced she must have imagined it. Masami held out his hand to her and smiled. "What do you say? Another dance?"
Milinda started to accept, but she pulled her hand away at the last moment. Glancing down at Masami's digital wristwatch, she was surprised to see that it was already nearing 11 o'clock. They must have stood in line longer than she thought. That meant she only had one more hour until Yume's spell on her dress ended and she still hadn't found the courage to tell Masami how she felt about him. As much as she would have liked to continue dancing, she knew that if they stayed, she would never get the chance to tell him.
"Actually, I'm kind of tired," she lied when Masami gave her a confused look. "The store called me in today to take over for the girl who usually works weekends, so I've been up on my feet all day."
"You should have told me, Milinda. We could have rescheduled. We didn't have to go out tonight."
"No, it's okay. I had already asked one of the other DJs to take over for me tonight at Pachanga…"
"Do you want to leave?" he asked, sounding so concerned that Milinda felt a little bad for lying to him about being called into work.
"If you don't mind."
Masami shook his head. "No, not at all. I think we've observed enough of this place. Besides, I think I'm going a little deaf. Come on, I'll take you home."
Within minutes after leaving the club, Milinda started to realize she had made a mistake and wished they had stayed for a little while longer. Without the loud music and equally loud dancers around them, the silence between her and Masami as they walked back to Pachanga - he had wanted to hail a cab, but she wouldn't hear of it - seemed positively deafening.
Maybe she should have told Masami how she felt about him while they were still at the club. At least then if he didn't react the way she was hoping he would, she could have always claimed he had misheard her over the music. There would be no mistaking her words outside on the streets, where only the sounds of the occasional car passing by or a group of drunken businessmen yelling at the top of their lungs broke the quiet.
Startled from her thoughts, Milinda looked over beside her to see Masami had stopped walking. "Something wrong?" she asked.
"You tell me," he said, frowning. "Is something bothering you, besides being tired? You've been acting strange tonight, not like yourself at all. You haven't fallen ill, have you?" Moving closer toward her, he started to bring his hand to her forehead to take her temperature.
"No!" Blushing, she stepped back. "I mean, other than a little sleepy, I feel fine. A little tipsy, perhaps, but nothing worse than that."
As if right on cue, Milinda accidentally tripped over a soda can that had rolled behind her from an overflowing trashcan, nearly falling on her butt. Luckily, though, Masami grabbed her arm and pulled her back up just in the nick of time.
"Are you alright?" he asked, helping her steady herself back on her feet.
Once again, Milinda was close enough to him to smell Masami's aftershave, the scent as intoxicating as a glass of wine. It took her a few seconds to realize that he was talking to her. "Um…yeah, I'm okay," she assured him, shaking her head to clear her mind. "I guess I had one too many cosmopolitans tonight."
"Here, let's sit down for a moment."
Though Milinda tried to protest, insisting she was fine, Masami took her by the arm and led her over to a nearby bench underneath a barren sakura tree. The two of them sat down as far apart as possible, which wasn't much since the bench wasn't very long, and Masami pulled out his pack of cigarettes, offering her one before lighting up his own.
Milinda, having refused the smoke, smoothed down the fabric of her magically-created dress over her knees, then began fiddling with the gold-plated bangle bracelets she wore on her wrist, the clang-clang of metal hitting metal seeming especially loud in the silence. Masami glanced over at her after one particularly noisy clank, and she stopped, dropping her hand back down in her lap.
"I'm sorry, Masami-chan," Milinda apologized, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
Masami snuffed out his cigarette on the arm of the bench and flicked it into the trashcan before turning toward her. "For what? The noise wasn't really bothering me. You didn't have to stop."
"No, not about that." Looking straight ahead, Milinda pretended to be overly interested in the sign across the street advertising a sale on laundry detergent. She probably shouldn't have said anything, but since she had, there was no turning back. "I just wanted tonight to be so perfect," she admitted, disappointed when she snuck a peek and caught the confused look on his face. Masami still hadn't seemed to have caught on to the real reason why she had asked him out.
"Why? What's so special about tonight?"
Sighing, Milinda shook her head. "It doesn't matter anymore," she said, standing up from the bench. She couldn't do it. Yume and Kera would be disappointed, but it was obvious that there wouldn't be a confession that night. Whatever attraction she thought he might have held for her on the dance floor must have been just a figment of her imagination. "Listen, my apartment isn't too far from here. You can go ahead and head back to the club to check on Kera. I'll be alright. I'll see you tomorrow night at Pachanga."
Ignoring him, Milinda pivoted on her heel and started to leave in the direction of her apartment building. She heard the sound of footsteps pounding the pavement behind her, but she refused to turn around, not wanting to Masami to see the tears that had begun to burn in her eyes. Fists clenched at her side, she kept her head held high and her focus straight ahead.
Unfortunately, in the dark and still a little buzzed from the drinks she had at the bar, it was difficult to see where she was going. Milinda stumbled over a large crack in the sidewalk, her stiletto heel having caught in the gap, and fell down hard on the concrete. Masami quickly ran to catch up to her, kneeling down beside her.
"Milinda, are you hurt?" he asked upon seeing her crying as he helped her sit back up and took off her shoe to examine her ankle.
As embarrassed and childish as she felt, Milinda was grateful for the cover. She wiped away her tears with her hand and shook her head. "I think I'm okay," she said. "I was just surprised, that's all."
"Are you sure? Maybe I should take you to the emergency room."
"I said I was fine, Masami-chan." To prove it, she took off her other shoe and attempted to stand back up, mostly succeeding. Mostly, because even though she managed to rise to her feet and take a few steps on her own, Milinda couldn't hide the throbbing pain she felt from showing on her face.
"You don't look it," Masami said, coming up beside her and allowing her to lean on him. "Let's go to the hospital."
"But you don't like hospitals…"
"It's fine. I can handle it for a couple of hours while you get checked out."
"No, it's probably only a mild sprain," she insisted, shaking her head. All she wanted to do was go home and forget about the whole disastrous night. The last thing she needed was to be stuck in the hospital emergency room with a man who couldn't stand them. "I don't need to go to the hospital."
"Then at least let me get us a cab."
"But we're only a couple blocks away. I can make it."
"Why must you always be so stubborn?" A small smile played on Masami's lips, despite the situation. "Well, if you really want to continue walking, let me use my power to help with the pain. I'm not taking no for an answer."
Before she had a chance to refuse, Masami held out his hand and activated the amber ring he wore on his middle finger. The hologram of a beautiful snowflake, his crest, appeared above it, then swooped down to caress her ankle. Almost immediately, Milinda felt the pain ebb away, leaving behind only a dull ache.
"Masami-chan, you shouldn't have done that," she said. "That's a use of power without an official request, not to mention the fact that you're not a hospital mage. Aren't they the only ones who are licensed to perform pain relief magic?"
Masami shrugged. "It doesn't matter. I'll submit a letter of apology to the Bureau tomorrow. What's the use of having this power if I can't help the people I care about when I can?"
Milinda's eyes widened slightly, surprised to hear Masami say something like that. It had been so long since he had viewed his powers as anything else but a punishment for living when Takako had died. It reminded her of how he used to be when he first got his mage license, so full of optimism and a strong will to help other people no matter what. "Yume's been a good influence on you," she commented with a small smile. "You wouldn't have said something like that a few months ago."
Ignoring the compliment, Masami loudly cleared his throat, then wrapped his right arm around her waist, letting Milinda hold onto him as they continued walking. "Come on, I'll take you back to the club. It's closer."
She was in no position to argue.
Slowly, the two of them made their way toward Pachanga, Milinda limping along as Masami acted as a crutch. Most of her pain was gone thanks to his magic, and she probably could have walked just fine by herself if she really wanted, but Milinda rather liked being in such close contact with Masami. In fact, she was so content that she didn't even notice when her dress started glowing until Masami suddenly stopped to stare.
Upon seeing that her beautiful new dress had transformed back into her usual Pachanga uniform of a red halter top and black leather miniskirt, Milinda sighed.
"And so the carriage turns back to a pumpkin," she chuckled dryly, Masami regarding her as if she had suddenly started talking in tongues.
"Was that magic I just saw?" he demanded to know.
Having no choice but to admit the truth, Milinda nodded and looked away so he wouldn't notice the blush that she was positive was spreading across her face. "Yume conjured it for me. She knew how much I wanted to look nice tonight."
"You filed a request for a new dress?"
"No, I doubt I would have had enough money to even pay the request fee. I didn't ask her for it either," she was quick to explain, just in case Masami thought she had manipulated Yume into using her powers illegally. "Yume said it was perfectly legal."
Frowning, Masami rubbed his chin in thought. "I don't see how it could be…"
"Will Yume get in much trouble?"
"Don't worry about it," he said with a reassuring smile. "If it was indeed an illegal action, all she'll have to do is write a letter of apology to the Bureau. It was a minor enough spell that she won't be seriously punished."
Milinda let out a sigh of relief. If she had gotten Yume into serious trouble with the Bureau of Mage Labor, she never would have forgiven herself. "I'm glad."
"But why did Yume-chan go through so much trouble for you, Milinda?" he asked.
"Oh, you know Yume." Milinda flicked her wrist, trying to pass the whole thing as no big deal. "That girl has a heart as big as an elephant. Whenever she sees somebody in trouble, she has to try to help."
"I'm well aware of Yume-chan's kindness, but I also know she wouldn't knowingly break a mage law without good cause," Masami said. "Why did you want a new dress just to go check out a club with me anyway? You have plenty of club clothes. That outfit you're wearing now would have been just fine."
Even though he couldn't see it, she rolled her eyes and laughed as if he had just said the funniest thing in the world. "Masami-chan, you obviously know nothing about women. Clothes are very important to us. I couldn't wear this old thing to the opening of a hot new nightclub."
"But that's not the reason you wanted it, is it?"
Stiffening at his words, Milinda barely held in a gasp. Had he finally figured it out? She turned back around to look at him, not at all surprised to discover Masami was staring at her. However, there was something different in his eyes, a look that she never recalled seeing before - at least, not when he was looking at her.
"You wanted to look nice for me," he answered for her when she failed to reply to his question. "That's why Yume used her magic to conjure the dress for you."
"M-Masami-chan, I… I…"
Unable to speak, Milinda looked down and sighed. She finally had a golden opportunity before her to tell him the truth about how she felt, yet all she could think about was how nothing had gone according to her plans. Her beautiful dress was gone, she was walking - well, limping - barefoot on Masami's arm, and her ankle was beginning to swell to the size of a small grapefruit despite the use of his magic to dull the pain. The scene was hardly what she had in mind when she envisioned the moment she would finally confess her love to him, but Milinda knew if she didn't take advantage of it, she probably never would.
Just when she was about to tell him, however, Milinda heard Masami draw in a sharp breath. She quickly looked up and was amazed by what she saw.
All around them, what at first appeared to be a strange luminous snow fell from the autumn sky, casting off a soft, romantic glow. Masami, who looked even more surprised than she was by the sight, stretched out his hand and caught one of the "snowflakes" on the tip of his finger.
"Magic?" he breathed when the alleged snowflake disappeared at his touch. "But where is this coming from?"
"It's not yours?" Milinda asked, confused. Even though the glow appeared more round than like the oversized artificial snowflakes she saw when Masami used his magic, she thought for sure he must have created it. "But your crest is a snowflake…"
He shook his head. "Look closer. They're not snowflakes, neither natural nor magical. Snow doesn't glow like this, not even mine."
"Then what is it? Fireflies?"
"I'm not sure, but I'm positive that whatever it is, it was made with magic. This isn't natural."
Well, whatever it was, Milinda thought it was absolutely beautiful. If it wasn't for her twisted ankle, she would have loved to spin around in the glowing, floating lights like a little kid playing in the rain, but instead she contented herself with resting her head on Masami's shoulder, the two of them silently watching as the magic continued to fall down on them.
For the first time all night, Milinda felt really and truly relaxed. All her worries and fears drained away, and even the dull ache in her ankle seemed to have disappeared, at least temporarily. Feeling Masami wrap an arm around her shoulders, she closed her eyes and whispered the words she had been trying to say for the past ten years:
"I love you, Masami-chan."
It wasn't the way she had planned it to happen, but she knew deep inside it was the perfect moment she had been waiting for. Her heart pounded against her ribcage as she waited for Masami to respond, the magic show all but forgotten.
When he finally did, his response was not one she had been expecting.
"I know," he said softly. "I've always known."
"What?" Milinda's eyes flew back open. "What do you mean, you've always known?" she asked, lifting her head off his shoulder to face toward him.
Much to her surprise, Masami chuckled. "Milinda, you were never exactly subtle about how you felt about me. I admit it took me a while to figure it out, but I've known for quite some time that you were in love with me."
Milinda blushed, knowing it was true. She had given him blatant hints over the years, even introducing herself as his girlfriend when she first met his new trainees, especially the female ones, but she always assumed that Masami thought she was joking since he never got mad at her. "Oh, right."
"But up until now," he said, placing his hands in his pockets, "I wasn't able to answer your feelings."
"Because of Takako."
He nodded. "Yes."
"And now?" She forced herself to meet his gaze, moving to stand in front of him.
"And now…" Slowly, Masami withdrew his right hand from his pocket and brought it to the side of her face. His touch felt wonderfully warm in the coolness of the night. "I care about you too, Milinda," he said, bringing a smile to her lips. "To be honest, I don't know if it's love yet, but I wouldn't mind exploring the possibility if you are. After all, it's time I moved on with my life, right? It's what Takako wants."
Her smile disappeared. As happy as she was to hear that Masami cared about her, Milinda couldn't ignore the last part of what he said. "It's what Takako wants?" she repeated, taking a step back away from him.
Masami seemed a bit shocked by her reaction. "Did I say something wrong?"
Milinda shook her head, feeling rather bad when she saw the confusion written on his face. He didn't seem to realize the connotation behind what he said. "No, not really," she said, brushing back a strand of dark hair that had fallen over his eyes. "But, Masami-chan, do you really want to be with me, or are you forcing yourself to do this because you think it is what Takako wants? Because it's one thing to say that you are ready to move on, but if you're only doing this for Takako, then I don't thi-"
The rest of her sentence was cut short when Masami brought his finger to her lips.
"Milinda, I want you," he declared. "Not out of some sense of dedication to Takako, but because you are Milinda, and I like you."
Her eyes welling up with tears of joy, Milinda threw herself in Masami's arms.
The next morning, a mildly hung-over Milinda woke up to discover that she was sleeping in somebody else's bed. She immediately sat up, and upon seeing that she was still wearing her clothes from last night, she let out a sigh of relief. As memorable as the previous night had been, she wouldn't have wanted to ruin her relationship with Masami before it had even really started.
But why was she in Masami's bedroom? Groaning, Milinda tossed the blanket off to the side to reveal her wrapped up ankle. She remembered then what had happened.
When they arrived back at Pachanga the night before, Masami had carried her up to his apartment to wrap up her ankle, which had begun bothering her again. She only meant to stay for a few minutes, but Masami had insisted she stay for a nightcap and they ended up staying up to nearly four in the morning, talking and drinking. She must have eventually fallen asleep, though, for Milinda didn't recall agreeing to spend the night.
Smelling coffee, Milinda got out of bed and hobbled to the kitchen where she found Masami. He was already dressed for the day and cooking breakfast.
"Good morning, Milinda," he said, smiling when he caught her standing in the doorway, peering in.
"Morning…" After rubbing the remaining sleep out of her eyes, she looked around for signs of the trainee who was boarding with Masami. When she saw the coast was clear, Milinda hopped over to the table and took a seat. "Is Hiromasa around?"
"Still sleeping. It's Sunday, so I thought I would let him sleep in today." Walking over to the table, Masami poured Milinda a cup of steaming hot coffee and handed her a couple of aspirin, which she immediately swallowed. "I slept on the couch, by the way," he said before she even had a chance to ask.
"You shouldn't have done that," Milinda said, wrapping her hands around the mug in front of her. "I could have taken the couch or gone home…"
"You weren't in any condition to go home, Milinda. You passed out around four."
"I did?" That was news to her, but it did explain why she didn't remember going to sleep in Masami's bed. "Sorry. I guess I shouldn't have drunk so much after I had so many cosmopolitans at the club."
"That's okay. You're a fun drunk," he assured her with a small grin. "You know, in all the years I've known you, you never told me you were a closet Hello Kitty fan."
"I told you that!" Milinda's cheeks burned scarlet as she looked down at the surface of the table.
"Among other things."
"What other things?"
"Oh, a little of this and a little of that…" She must have looked positively horrified, for after Masami brought a couple of plates over to the table, he came up behind Milinda and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Hey, don't worry," he said, bending down to kiss the top of her head. "I still like you. In fact, I think I like you even more now that I know some of your dirty little secrets."
It was rather strange to see Masami acting so openly affectionate, even after last night. Milinda didn't know quite what to think about it. Had he been that way with Takako, too, in their more private moments? As Masami took a seat in the chair opposite her, Milinda shook her head and pushed the thought away. It wasn't fair to compare the two relationships.
"So, how do you feel?" Masami asked, spreading some jelly on his toasted bagel.
Milinda's head shot up. "About us?"
"I actually meant physically," he clarified, clearly amused by her mistake.
"Oh." She forced out a giggle, trying to cover up her embarrassment. "I'm fine. I have a bit of a headache and my ankle's still a little sore, but other than that, I'm okay."
"I still think you should have that ankle looked at by a doctor."
"Not necessary. I'm sure it's only a mild sprain."
"If you say so…" He didn't look convinced, but he didn't push the subject.
After breakfast, the two of them decided to go downstairs to the bar before Hiromasa woke up and found her there. Against her protests, Masami insisted on carrying Milinda down the two flights of stairs so that she wouldn't put any more unnecessary stress on her ankle. As embarrassed as she felt, she had to admit it felt nice being held in his arms.
Down at the bar, they found Kera still there, chatting with Yume and Runa. Their conversation died, though, when they saw Masami carrying Milinda through the doors like a groom crossing the threshold with his bride on their wedding day. Looking up from the glass he was wiping, Kera let out a low whistle while the other two clapped politely, smiles on their faces.
"Way to go, Owner!"
As Masami sat her down at one of the stools in front of the bar, Milinda rolled her eyes. It figured he would jump to that conclusion, but she didn't really mind. "Oh, get your mind out of the gutter, Kera," she said. "Nothing like that happened last night. I just sprained my ankle."
"What happened, Milinda-san?" Yume asked worriedly, helping Milinda elevate her ankle on the stool next to her. "Does it hurt?"
"Oh, it was just a silly little accident. One of my heels got caught in a crack in the sidewalk and I tripped. It's really not as bad as it looks. Masami-chan used his magic to subdue most of the pain."
Yume's eyes widened, looking as if she had just been told her former teacher was actually an alien from outer space. "Oyamada-sensei used his magic without an official request or the proper license for that kind of power?"
"Yes, but don't you start following my example, Yume-chan," Masami said. "That goes for you, too, Kera. I don't want to hear from your instructor that you've picked up bad habits from me."
"Yes, sir," the two mages said in unison.
"And while we're on the subject, Yume-chan," he continued, "Milinda told me you used your magic to transform her clothes into a dress she wanted. Is that true?"
After a short moment of shock that he had found out about the spell, Yume nodded. "I did."
"You know that using your powers without an official request is against mage regulations."
"But there was a request," the teen declared, much to Milinda's surprise.
"By who? I never made one."
From his spot behind the bar, Kera shared a guilty, yet strangely proud, look with Runa. "Look like we're busted, kiddo."
"Yep, guess so," Runa agreed, smiling.
"You mean you two had something to do with this?" Milinda asked, getting more confused by the moment.
"Milinda, Runa-chan was the one who made the request," Kera admitted. "I wanted to make sure your night with Owner was one you would never forget, so when you told me about your money problems and how much you wanted that dress, I asked Runa-chan to submit a request, then we asked Yume to come down here to perform it, since I'm still a trainee and I haven't been using my powers long."
"Why Yume-chan, though?" Masami wanted to know. "Even if you didn't think you were skilled enough to perform the spell, there are plenty of other mages right here in Tokyo you could have gone to."
"We didn't want you to accidentally find out about it. That's why Kera-san took me to the Iwate Prefecture to submit the request," Runa explained.
"They also picked me up on their way back to Tokyo," Yume added, turning to Milinda to give her an apologetic bow. "I'm sorry, Milinda-san. I lied to you when I told you that Kera-san called me and invited me to come to Tokyo. He and Runa-chan actually asked me in person. It's also no coincidence I ran into you that day when you were looking at the dress in the store window. I followed you so I would know which dress you wanted."
Milinda could only shake her head in complete disbelief of what she was hearing. She never realized they all cared about her so much. It almost made her want to cry, but not wanting to seem like a total basket-case, she just smiled and squeezed Yume's hand in gratitude.
"Thank you, guys. I can't believe you all went through so much trouble just for me."
"Well, it was worth it to see you two finally get together," Kera said, reaching for a bottle of champagne. "You are together, aren't you?"
Craning her neck so that she could look up at Masami, who had come up behind her to rest his hands on her shoulders, Milinda grinned. She still couldn't believe it had finally happened. It felt like a dream, but if it was, then she hoped she never woke up.
"Yes, I suppose we are," Masami said in response to Kera's question.
"In that case, drinks on me!" Popping the cork on the bottle he had grabbed, Kera poured three glasses of champagne for the adults, then got out a couple of cans of ginger ale for Yume and Runa. Once everybody had a drink, he then raised his glass in a toast. "Here's to Milinda and Owner, who have finally found each other after all these years."
After clinking her glass together with Masami's, Milinda took a sip of the champagne, the bubbles tickling her nose. She laughed and was about to take another drink when she remembered something. Setting the glass back down on the bar, she turned to Yume.
"Hmm?" Yume brought down her drink, giving Milinda her full attention. "What is it, Milinda-san?"
"There's something I don't understand," Milinda said, her mind going back to the previous night and the beautiful sight they had seen after the spell had broken on her dress. "On our way back to the club, it started snowing."
The teen tilted her head to the side in confusion. "Snowing? But how? It's not even winter yet."
"It wasn't a natural snow," Masami explained, frowning. "Whatever it was, it was glowing and not at all cold. I'm almost positive it was some sort of magic, but it wasn't mine. I think Milinda wants to know if you had something to do with it, Yume-chan."
Yume shook her head. "No, by that time, I was already asleep. You can ask Runa-chan. We were both in bed by ten."
"It wasn't me either, Owner," the bartender insisted, waving his arms in front of him in denial. "I was busy managing the club in your absence. I couldn't have, even if I wanted to."
"And I'm not a mage," Runa added unnecessarily.
"Then where did it come from?" Milinda asked.
Neither Kera nor Yume could come up with an explanation for the strange phenomenon, both of them shrugging their shoulders apologetically. However, upon seeing the ring on Kera's finger, the corners of Milinda's mouth curled upward into a small smile.
Though the ring had been outfitted with a new stone when Kera registered with the Bureau of Mage Labor, she knew the ring itself once belonged to Takako. Back when Kera was wondering if he might be a mage, he had stolen it from Masami's desk. Masami had let him keep it, though, when Kera discovered he possessed magic powers.
She didn't know how, but when she saw that ring, Milinda knew without a doubt who had sent the glowing snow. Looking up at the ceiling, she said a silent prayer.
"Thank you, Takako, for giving us your blessing."